A new park in downtown Springfield may be small, but organizers are hopeful its prominent location may provide a boost to outdoor dining activity.
Dubbed Pocket Park SGF, the 5,000-square-foot public space next to Nonna’s Italian Cafe opened early last month in a lot at the southeast corner of South Avenue and McDaniel Street. The lot is owned by Anne and Clayton Baker, co-owners of downtown restaurants Civil Kitchen, Finnegan’s Wake and Tinga Tacos. The Bakers recently agreed to lease the lot to the Downtown Springfield Community Improvement District.
Anne Baker said via email she and her husband love being part of the downtown community and were intrigued when approached by the CID board about the pocket park concept. A pocket park is a small outdoor space, usually no more than a quarter acre, often located in an urban area surrounded by commercial buildings or houses on small lots with few places for people to gather, relax or enjoy the outdoors, according to the National Recreation and Park Association.
“We saw their plans for the lot and were very excited to be able to give the community an area to enjoy,” Baker said. “This area provides comfortable, al fresco seating for downtown restaurant guests that they wouldn’t have otherwise. Also, it is very popular with our downtown dwellers with dogs.”
The pocket park, which is surrounded by colorfully painted concrete road barriers along its perimeter, includes a designated food truck area, benches for public seating and a sunflower patch. Baker said the two-year lease is for $1 and the CID maintains the greenspace. The Bakers oversee the gravel pad on the south portion of the property, which is used for mobile eateries.
Except for special events, Baker said the food trucks are currently being booked for Friday and Saturday nights.
Craig Wagoner, Downtown Springfield CID board member and owner of Brentwood Properties Inc., said the property had previously sat unused for years before the Bakers became its owners in 2022. Baker declined to disclose the property purchase details.
“It’s a good, visible corner. We didn’t want to put a whole lot of money into it for two years,” Wagoner said, noting the CID provided the concrete barriers and furniture and did landscaping work, including seeding grass, to open the park. “We came up with a simple design to make improvements.”
For the park, Wagoner said the CID invested roughly $6,000, including labor from its in-house maintenance crew.
“It really looks good, especially compared to what it was when it was just mud and gravel area before. Now, it’s cleaned up and has grass,” he said, adding crews will pick up trash and maintain the land. “We planted sunflowers around the south edge.”
The Downtown Springfield CID originated in 1999 and was renewed by property owners in 2007 for 10 years and in 2016 for another 15 years, according to its website. Beyond its half-cent sales tax rate, other funding sources for the CID include a property tax assessment of 75 cents per $100 of assessed valuation and voluntary contributions from governmental and nonprofit organizations. The district’s boundaries are approximately Kimbrough Avenue on the east, Elm Street on the south, Grant Avenue on the west and Chestnut Expressway on the north.
Annual revenue for the CID funds maintenance and parking services, safety and security, image enhancement and marketing services. Wagoner said projected fiscal 2024 revenue is $340,000 for the sales tax and $280,000 for the property tax.
Baker said the pocket park wasn’t the first idea the couple had for the space.
“We initially thought about doing a short-term parking lot to add parking spaces for downtown retail and restaurant customers, and to add some electric charging stations for electric vehicles,” she said. “But the code restrictions made the project infeasible.”
Wagoner said the CID board was brainstorming uses for the property that could be executed over the short term when it landed on the pocket park idea.
“This was something simple,” he said, adding the CID is open to ideas to improve on the concept. “It’s not big square footage for someone wanting to build a building.”
Food trucks for Tinga Tacos, The Crepe Shack and The Almighty Sando Shop have made appearances in the first few weeks, Baker said, noting the eateries are offering late-night weekend options. She said several others, including Doggy Style Food Truck and The Lunar Lunchbox, also are on the upcoming schedule.
“This gives not only downtowngoers a place to eat after a night out, but downtown industry workers a place to grab delicious, local food after a late shift,” she said. “We want to wait and see if it is successful before we try to add to it.”
This year, for the 38th season, the Springfield Ballet Inc. will perform “The Nutcracker” on the proscenium stage of the Landers Theatre, with six performances set Dec. 15-18.